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Anxiety Disorder Complicates NBA Player's Career

Nov 16, 2012
Originally published on November 16, 2012 8:07 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Now, to an unusual drama playing out in the NBA. It involves the Houston Rockets and their first-round draft choice, the 6-foot-8-inch-tall forward named Royce White. White suffers from general anxiety disorder, and the illness is complicating his transition to life in the NBA. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays. Hi there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So first of all, tell us a little bit more about Royce White.

FATSIS: Well, he suffered from anxiety most of his life. He's had regular panic attacks. He is afraid of flying, for instance, but he's consistently performed well in basketball, especially at Iowa State when he was there in college. His NBA prospects, though, were affected by his mental health. Flying is endless in the NBA. Teams worry about how they're going to deal with players, but the Rockets drafted him with the 16th pick. The team pledged to work with him to accommodate his condition. For instance, it agreed to let him drive to as many road games as possible, but the relationship has deteriorated over the last couple of weeks.

CORNISH: Why? What happened?

FATSIS: Well, I spoke with someone close to White this morning, and he said that there's been this disconnect between the team and the player since training camp. White missed some practices because of his anxiety then. He didn't play in the first eight regular season games. He skipped practices and a home game this week. The Rockets told media that the absences were unexcused. They said they were going to fine him for every day he doesn't report to practice or meet with a local doctor chosen by the team. White has his personal doctor who's in Minnesota, where he grew up. Now, White issued a statement saying that the team has been inconsistent in its agreement to accommodate his illness. Then he went on a Twitter jag criticizing the Rockets. This has gone south in a hurry.

CORNISH: Now, he's been very open about this, and he even appeared in a short documentary about it that was on ESPN's Grantland website. Let's listen to Royce White in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

ROYCE WHITE: My doctor told me when I was 18, she looked at me right in the face and said, you know what, you know, basketball might not be what's best for you because this industry is built to defeat somebody like you. But I want people to see that you can deal with your disorder or you can chase your dream.

FATSIS: You know, that's seeming eerily prescient now, Audie. And it's sad because this is an intelligent, self-aware, very talented athlete who wants to deliver a message particularly to young people and young black athletes about mental illness. But willfully or not, whether because of his illness or not, White may be sabotaging that opportunity. As for the Rockets, it's a chance for a pro sports team to demonstrate compassion to an athlete while also serving its self-interest, getting a return on their investment. But it's a business too, and athletes are, as White tweeted, commodities and teams aren't known for their patience.

CORNISH: I mean, you have to wonder how does someone like Royce White manage to get even this far, given his condition?

FATSIS: Well, for one thing, you know, playing the game doesn't seem to have ever been the issue with him. He was Mr. Basketball in Minnesota as a high school senior. He did have panic attacks, but he lived at home. He wasn't traveling. He first went to the University of Minnesota, but he left during his freshman year, wound up transferring to Iowa State. And the key to his success there was a network of coaches who supported and protected him, helped him avoid situations that might trigger anxiety or panic.

I think the Rockets may have underestimated how careful and vigilant they need to be with a type of person like Royce White. For instance, they didn't give him any advanced notice that he wouldn't be in uniform for one of the first games of the season. White seems like a good person. You hope that it's not too late for this to be resolved.

CORNISH: What's interesting is White isn't the only athlete to publicly suffer from panic attacks. I mean, this week, a golfer named Charlie Beljan suffered a panic attack on the course, and he still wound up winning a tournament. I mean, are these guys trailblazers or - in just the fact that they're able to admit their mental disorders?

FATSIS: You know, we're seeing more athletes go public with mental illness. You know, athletes tend to see themselves as warriors. They can handle the problems themselves the way they handle a play on the field. And there's also this fear of being stigmatized as weak because mental illness isn't the kind of injury that you can rehab in a few days. But again, you see more people going public.

Zack Greinke, a pitcher with the Los Angeles Angels now, he missed most of the 2006 season, being treated for social anxiety disorder. More and more athletes are admitting in discussing these kinds of illnesses, and more teams are willing to deal with them too. And that's all very positive.

CORNISH: Stefan, thank you.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on slate.com's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.